Ukraine starts planning for post-war tourism: ‘We welcome our guests if they don’t come with guns’

Exclusive: ‘We know how to act from the moment when Ukrainian borders and Ukrainian skies open again’ – tourism boss Mariana Oleskiv

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 04 March 2024 21:24 GMT
Exclusion zone: a tourist at the radar array close to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which will be off limits initially
Exclusion zone: a tourist at the radar array close to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which will be off limits initially (Simon Calder)

Ukraine will this week launch a campaign for international tourists – telling the world that it has the infrastructure, hotels and service to support visitors.

On the eve of the world’s biggest travel event, ITB in Berlin, the chair of Ukraine’s State Agency for Tourism Development has told The Independent that tourism will be an essential part of post-war recovery.

Mariana Oleskiv said: “We welcome our guests if they don’t come with guns.

“Any money that people will spend in Ukraine will help the economy to recover.

“We have now the brand of Ukraine developed and well known around the world. But it's not associated with tourism.”

“People think about Ukraine – maybe about bravery, about war, about destruction. So they see the picture that Ukraine looks like Mariupol, for example.

“We have many cities look like this, but it's around 20 per cent or 30 per cent of territory that is occupied.

“The rest is alright. It’s very beautiful. We have good infrastructure and we have very good hotels, good service, internet coverage.

“We need to create interest to Ukraine not just as people that you support and you feel sorry for – but also the country you want to support by visiting.

“We don't know when. We don't know if it's going to be in this year, or next year or in two years. We have this time to prepare, to have plans – even though they are on hold for this moment. But we know how to act from the moment when Ukrainian borders and Ukrainian skies open again.”

Ms Oleskiv took up her role in March 2020 – on the eve of an expected rapid expansion of flights from the UK and elsewhere. But new links to Odessa that both Ryanair and Wizz Air were selling from London were scuppered by the Covid pandemic.

Glory days: Passazh Shopping Arcade, Odessa, before the Russian invasion (Tony Wheeler)

Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, halting all tourism from abroad.

Remarkably, Ukrainians are still taking holidays, Ms Oleskiv said.

“We still have tourism – domestic tourism – in Ukraine. And this is something that helps us also to cope with everything that that is going on in our country.

“We have cafes, bars, restaurants, working. We have hotels open and actually during last winter, when we had blackout, very often the hotels were that place where people could have food, charge their phones because they all had generators.”

“People do travel, they travel with families with kids from the destinations that are less safe to destinations that are more safe: in the Carpathian mountains, western central Ukraine. This is something that keeps us our mental health being alright and being OK.”

But the chair of the Ukrainian tourism body stressed that visitors from abroad should stay away until the war is over: “Not now. We are not inviting anybody now because of many reasons. First of all, logistics are very complicated. And insurance companies do not cover risks in Ukraine. So even if you get flu somewhere in Ukraine that is not related to war, it would not be covered by most of insurance companies. So we're not inviting anyone here.”

Ms Oleskiv said tourism would resume “as soon as the flights are renewed and we can talk about complete safety in certain regions”.

Last month Ryanair renewed its pledge to set up a large-scale air operation in the three key tourist cities of Kyiv, Lviv and Odessa within six weeks of a ceasefire.

Fighting back: Tourism will return to Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities as soon as the guns fall silent (Simon Calder)

Before the Russian invasion, the three cities attracted the vast majority of international visitors to Ukraine. But the nation is keen to diversify.

“In 2021 – that was still Covid – we developed a new tourist route to the Carpathian mountains for tourists from Saudi Arabia,” Ms Oleskiv said.

“They really loved it. We have very good resorts there: green with a lot of rain, nice weather. And we had plans for 2022 to triple the quantity of tourists. But of course Russia started the war and we couldn't do this.”

Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear reactor explosion in 1986, was one of the leading attractions for visitors before the Russian invasion. But Ms Oleskiv said it will be off limits for some time.

“There was a Russian invasion through that territory. It was mined in order not to let them in again,” she said.

“We don’t want to develop ‘dark tourism’. We want to tell people the history of this war and the story of people and also show the consequences and Russian war crimes. Our main audience is future generations.”

For more travel news, views and advice from Simon, download his daily Independent Travel podcast.

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